New York voters have favored the Democratic Party by overwhelming majorities for three decades, so by all rights, the state should be a progressive leader on health care, voting rights, climate change, and much more. But since 2011, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state Sen. Jeff Klein, despite having both been elected as Democrats, have done everything in their power to stop New York from embracing progress by undermining democracy to ensure Republicans retain control of their last bastion of power: the state Senate.
Republicans have governed New York’s Senate almost continually since World War II, interrupted only by brief interregnums following the 1964 and 2008 Democratic landslides. They have done this not by continually winning the most support from New Yorkers, but by virtue of gerrymandering, voter suppression, and most importantly, Democrats like Cuomo who prefer policies that concentrate wealth among the ultra-rich instead of building a more inclusive society.
No one in New York has done more than Cuomo to crush progressive legislation for the last decade, and no one has been more dishonest about his real motivations. This is the story of how a reactionary Democratic governor has thwarted the desires of the voters to elect a progressive government in the second-largest blue state in America—a state that could influence many others by example but instead remains inert.
It’s also the story of an ambitious politician who has designs on one day becoming president. Cuomo has portrayed himself as a liberal leader, but as he makes his way on to the national stage ahead of the 2020 presidential primaries, it’s important that progressives understand his true record. It’s one they won’t like.
Cuomo ran against gerrymandering, then embraced it
It all started with the stroke of a pen. After spending his 2010 campaign and his first year in office pretending to favor nonpartisan redistricting reform by threatening he would veto any gerrymander that reached his desk, Andrew Cuomo signed a state Senate map that was and still is one of the most extreme Republican gerrymanders in the country. In exchange, the GOP let Democrats gerrymander the state Assembly, but in a state as blue as New York, Democrats had no need to manipulate district lines in the lower chamber, where they’d comfortably maintained a majority since 1974. It was a nonsensical deal.
Yet in spite of the Senate map, Democratic candidates surprisingly won a 33-to-30 majority on Election Day in 2012 thanks to Barack Obama’s coattails. Democratic state Sen. Simcha Felder, who represents a conservative and heavily Orthodox Jewish district in Brooklyn, announced that he’d caucus with the Republicans, but even that wouldn’t have been enough to hand power to the GOP.
However, led by Jeff Klein, four Senate Democrats in reliably blue districts had defected to the Independent Democratic Conference the previous year, forming a coalition with Republicans in a corrupt deal to win committee chairmanships—and in so doing, earn extra pay and special perks. With Cuomo’s encouragement, that arrangement kept up even after Democrats nominally won a majority in 2012; by 2018, the IDC’s ranks had swollen to eight members. Along with Felder, this breakaway faction continued to ensure Republican control of the Senate even though Democratic candidates again won a 32-31 majority in 2016, as shown in the map below.
But things didn’t have to be this way. One way we can measure the impact of gerrymandering in New York is to analyze the alternative nonpartisan map proposed in 2011 by Common Cause, a nationally recognized good-government group. This map would have corrected the GOP’s deliberate malapportionment, which had artificially deprived New York City of a district by overpopulating the city’s seats and underpopulating Upstate seats. It also would have created several more districts where people of color would have formed a majority or had significant influence on election outcomes.
One method we can use to measure a party’s advantage in redistricting is to compare the median district with the statewide presidential election result. In other words, if we rank every district in order, from Hillary Clinton’s widest margin of victory to Donald Trump’s best margin, the one in the middle is the median. Under the GOP’s gerrymander, the median district voted for Clinton by just 11 points—12 points to the right of her 23-point statewide victory. The 2012 results were even worse: Obama’s median district was 16 points closer than his 28-point landslide in New York. Based on this metric, New York’s Senate map gives Republicans one of their largest advantages in any state legislative chamber in the country.
By contrast, Common Cause’s proposal would have entirely eliminated the GOP’s median seat advantage. Indeed, this map’s median district would have been just 2 points to the left of Clinton’s statewide margin and almost identical to Obama’s 2012 margin. Consequently, we can conclude that not only does New York’s existing Senate map have an enormous pro-Republican slant, we can also attribute practically the entirety of that distortion to gerrymandering.
So how might Common Cause’s eminently fairer map have affected this decade’s elections had it been in effect? Below, we estimate the outcomes of hypothetical state Senate races, based on the strong correlation that the results of legislative races have with the presidential results, and also by looking at how candidates performed in their gerrymandered districts in reality.
As shown below, the Common Cause map likely would have allowed so-called “mainline” Senate Democrats to win six more seats in 2012, giving them a majority of 33 seats, with 24 going to Republicans and six to Democrats who at the time who supported GOP control of the chamber.
In reality, of course, mainstream Democrats didn’t regain control of the Senate that year, even though Democratic candidates in aggregate won the popular vote by double digits. Instead, Klein and his renegades propped up the GOP, despite the fact that New Yorkers thought they had elected a Democratic Senate.
Ever since, Cuomo has actively nurtured the IDC in order to blockade progressive policies, as we’ll discuss in detail below, all while passing the blame to the very Republicans he helped empower by signing their gerrymander into law. The eight members of the IDC rejoined the Democratic caucus in April, but only after Cuomo and most of the IDC drew serious primary challenges from mainstream Democrats—and that move still left the GOP with a majority of one seat thanks to Felder. Of course, there’s nothing stopping former IDC members from bolting again after Election Day.
Under Cuomo, New York’s lagged badly on voting rights
For the last several years, New York has come under growing scrutiny for its voting laws. Unlike other blue states, New York has no early voting period. It also does not permit same-day registration, which allows voters to register and vote at the same time (often on Election Day itself), instead requiring voters to register long in advance. And alone among states, it has two separate primaries—one for federal races, the other three months later for state races—which helps depress turnout. Most importantly, New York still requires an excuse to vote absentee. That combination of no excuse-free absentee voting, no in-person early voting, and no same-day registration is all but unheard of in deep-blue states.
Every year, Cuomo promises early voting and other reforms (to a flurry of positive media coverage), and every year he punts at the last minute. Even early voting, which Republicans governors in other states have managed to implement, eludes Cuomo. The result: New York has abysmal turnout, ranking 48th in the nation in 2014 and 29th in 2016. According to political scientist Michael McDonald, New York was one of the 10 states with the lowest turnout rates in eight of the last 10 elections.
Even Cuomo’s lone laudable move to expand voting rights by restoring them for those who’ve served time for felony convictions but are still on parole comes with major caveats: He only acted via executive order in April after progressive activist and actress Cynthia Nixon launched a primary challenge, even though he long had the power to do so in his seven years in office. And since the Senate GOP has opposed enshrining such reform into law, even this solution isn’t a permanent. Furthermore, the measure only affects 24,000 parolees, which represents just a fraction of New York’s disenfranchised population.
Automatic voter registration (AVR) is another area where New York has failed to act under Cuomo. Ten states and Washington, D.C. have passed AVR since Oregon became the first to do so in 2015, including red states like West Virginia and Alaska. And in blue states like Massachusetts and Rhode Island, Democrats are moving beyond automatically registering voters when they interact with the Department of Motor Vehicles to also include individuals who use programs like MassHealth and Medicaid, in order to reach those who don’t drive.
How Cuomo’s Disdain for Democracy Holds Back Progressives
Cuomo’s twin support for gerrymandering and Republican control of the state Senate have together held back a progressive New York. Thanks to the state of affairs that Cuomo has engineered, bills that would make voting easier are stuck in limbo. As a result, fewer people vote than otherwise should, and because those who face higher barriers to participation tend to lean toward Democrats, a smaller electorate is a less progressive electorate. That has ramifications far beyond Cuomo’s own political standing—and far beyond New York’s borders.
Democrats are making the House their No. 1 target this November, and perhaps half a dozen GOP seats could flip in New York alone. In close races, even a small shift in fortunes could spell the difference between Democrats winning and losing multiple seats. Indeed, in 2010, when Republicans picked up six seats from New York Democrats in that year’s GOP wave, three races were decided by less than 2 points and another by just 3 points. Control of the House—and the chance to put a check on Trump’s excesses—could very well come down to what happens in New York.
And New York itself has suffered under Cuomo’s malign arrangement. With the GOP in control, the Senate has blocked legislation that would enshrine Roe v. Wade into law and guarantee contraceptive coverage. It’s killed the Community and Climate Protection Act, which would have made New York a leader on climate on par with California.
It’s also punted on affordable housing, a gender non-discrimination bill, and the New York Health Act, which would have ensured every New Yorker has health insurance. It’s gutted education funding in budget after budget. And it’s even refused to pass a Child Victims Act that would extend the statute of limitations for child abuse survivors.
Cuomo’s cynical strategy of manufacturing a lower-turnout electorate while making deals with the right means that the state is far behind the progressive leanings of its voters. Polls show that New Yorkers are ready for universal healthcare, and they overwhelmingly favor aggressive action to combat climate change, too. Under Cuomo’s stewardship, nothing’s been forthcoming.
New York is one also of the most pro-immigrant states in the country, but the Senate has yet to deliver a state-level DREAM Act, which would allow undocument immigrants to receive state scholarships and financial aid for college. And though New York is overwhelmingly pro-choice, efforts to add reproductive rights to the state constitution have repeatedly failed to make headway in the Senate.
Cuomo likes to point to policies like an increase in the minimum wage to claim he’s a genuine progressive leader, even though the bill he signed will only partially bring a $15 minimum wage to the state by next decade. But most importantly, there’s simply no reason to believe a Democratic-run state Senate wouldn’t have passed those same progressive victories and gone even further.
With a truly progressive Senate, New York could become a progressive leader for the country, but Andrew Cuomo has spent his entire eight years as governor working to thwart that outcome because he fears it would hurt him in a potential presidential bid. With progressive primary challenges to Cuomo and his co-conspirator in the IDC well underway, however, as well as the likelihood that mainstream Democrats will win Republican seats in the Senate, change might finally be at hand in New York.